Sunday, August 19, 2007

Math is a four-letter word, actually

Don't believe those trouser labels that say 'one size fits all.' After the third or fourth person, you can't fit any more people in.

I've been spending time surfing the net diligently researching fitness and weight-loss blogs. Mostly interesting, and a good source of motivation. Apparently Blogland is filled with hard-working people trying to change their lives. It's not all about pr0n.

Once you read past the blog post itself and get into Commentland, however, the tone often changes. Someone will write about their difficulties losing weight, another commenter will weigh in (no pun intended) with advice or sympathy, a third will offer a different method to try.

And there will always be someone who logs in to tell the rest of the commenters that they are making the subject of weight loss far too difficult. What's wrong with them? It's simple. Math. Calories in < Calories out = Weight Loss. No big mystery. Just go do it.

Yeah, well some of us were English majors, buddy. Math is a mystery. For that matter, I find human physiology a mystery, even though I did take several classes in college on the subject. (Or maybe because...) Expecting a series of complex biochemical reactions to result in a simple straightforward weight-loss line on the chart is simplistic to the point of... takes a couple of deep, calming breaths. Just don't tell me it's simple.

Case in point. Last summer, I was in fairly good shape. Spent three or four months cycling 50 miles a week (commuting 10 miles a day to work). Extended my regime to include longer weekend rides and followed a fairly healthy diet plan. Had some pretty strong leg muscles, not to brag. (Well, not to brag too much.)

In addition, I:
  • Weighed my food, measuring the portions, figuring out how many calories, writing it all down on a computer program to know exactly what my caloric intake was.

  • Invested in an odometer for my bicycle, which told me the distance and rate of my workouts. Calculated the amount of calories burned for someone my age/weight.

One weekend, I did two bike rides, 30 and 20 miles respectively.
I calculated all the food I ingested that weekend. (Keeping within my calorie requirement, not undereating or overeating.)
According to MATH, I had a calorie deficit each day of 500 calories. A total of 1,000 little calories were burned off that weekend. Granted it takes 3500 calories to equal a pound of fat, but I was feeling pretty darn good about myself Sunday night when I went to bed. Got on the scale Monday morning with a smile on my lips.

Only to find that I had gained two pounds.

Since it is unlikely that the food I was eating suddenly acquired more calories just because I was the person doing the eating, I strongly suspect that the amount of calories burned is the point where the equation falls down. Yes, I do have a whacked-out thyroid thanks for asking. Quite probably I do burn fewer calories than the "average person of my age/weight" will burn. That doesn't mean I can't lose weight, but it does mean I'll have to research how much more I'll need to do to lose weight. (Life is unfair. Wah. Okay, let's go on.)

My point is that it is not always simple. One math formula does not fit all, because people burn calories at different rates. And if you have thyroid issues, insulin resistance, or a highly stressful life, you might have to try different approaches to weight loss before finding one that works.

If what you're doing isn't working, try something different. Example: currently I bicycle 40 miles a week commuting to work. My muscles don't ever feel tired from this exercise. A couple weeks ago, I decided to take a walk at lunch. Walked a couple of miles, not pushing myself by any means, just enjoying a beautiful afternoon. Damn, but when I got back to work I could actually feel it in my legs. They weren't sore, but they definitely felt the change. I started walked every afternoon, just for a couple of miles. And I lost two pounds that week! Doing something different, surprising my body with new exercise, is a trick that worked for me.

I have known a lot of people who tried a little exercise, or a little dieting, only to give up saying it didn't work. I don't believe that. I don't believe there are people who cannot ever lose weight. I do believe there are people who don't think they can find the time to exercise enough or follow a diet that's mostly vegetable-based. But if you give up, nothing will change. If you keep trying, you can find a method that gives good results. You can still do one thing today that will improve your situation. Pretend the elevator is broken, and climb the stairs at work. Eat a cup of carrots before you let yourself have that slice of pizza. Make it a game.

Might as well have fun, if you can manage it, while you're at it.


Anonymous said...

I am SO not qualified to comment on this, having thrown in the white flag on diet & exercise long ago.

However, let me say that I wish you the absolute best of health, strength, flexibility and good looks.

McB said...

I speak as one who has seen battle in the weight wars. I'm short and have a low metabolism. Plus which, I prefer reading over walking (or any other -ing) and enjoy food.

First let me say brava for continuing and not just throwing in the towel. Second, muscle has weight too. So you can exercise like crazy and not see much difference on the scale if you are adding muscle while burning calories. This is likely why you didn't see a big difference on the scale at first. But did you see a difference in other ways? The way your clothes fit for instance.

And what people don't understand is that exercise doesn't have to mean going to a gym or running laps. People set too strict a schedule, of course they are going to falter. Instead they need to work it into their lives. Park a little further from the building, work in the yard, scrub your kitchen floor ... all of this burns calories. So the walking at lunch was a great idea. It burns just a little more calorie-wise without increasing your muscle. But stick with the bike riding because it's such great aerobic exercise and fabulous for your heart.

And finally, not everyone is supposed to be a toothpick. Some of us are just made by God's grace to have curves. The important thing is your health and general energy levels. If you are in good physical shape, then what you are doing is making a difference.

Anonymous said...

I think having fun and enjoying what you are doing, eating are key to getting/staying fit and feeling good about yourself. If you don't like it, you won't do it.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Biking 40 miles a week! I'm so impressed!

Right now, I'm doing my biking on a stationary exercise bike. I'm too embarrassed to go outdoors and ride my 10-speed. Hey, Myrtle! Lookit that fat woman on that bike! Looks like a grape on a toothpick! When I'm smaller, I'll ride outside.